Decades of Blown Calls and “Bad” Umpires

There’s plenty of talk today, as there has been all month, about the poor umpiring in these playoffs. In last night’s Game 2, we saw Ryan Howard pull off a 3-4 double play after the first base umpire Brian Gorman incorrectly said that Howard caught the ball on the fly. Replays seemed to show that the ball took an oh-so-small short-hop into the mitt, but Gorman wasn’t in the best position to see it. It was a tough call and one that you can’t really fault the umpire for, but it was wrong all the same.

And it was exacerbated the next inning, with the Phillies up to bat. Chase Utley grounded the ball to second and, after Cano and Jeter did an excellent job turning a tough relay to get the lead runner out, he was called out at first by Gorman for the double-play. Replays were much more conclusive on this one, and Utley was clearly safe. Many people, Phillies and Yankees fans alike, had no choice but to wonder if it was a “make-up call” by Gorman (don’t believe me? Twitter will vouch for that.)

So, considering all of that, this quote doesn’t seem too far-fetched:

Whatever else this World Series is remembered for, it will be remembered for the uneven quality of its justice. As in previous Series, plenty of solid work was turned in behind the plate and on the basepaths. But in this one, much of it was undone by a few fateful blinks of the eye.

Okay, maybe it’s not 100% true, but it’s pretty close. And since it’s a column from 1992 (by Jim Litke), when the Blue Jays were busy winning their first of two back-to-back championships, I think that’s understandable. The point here is that, while it may seem like the umpires are worse this year than they’ve ever been, it’s really hard to say if that’s true. Umpires have been blowing calls on the big stage for years, for decades. More from the article:

(Click “Read More” to continue reading.)

Each time bad calls call this much attention to themselves – see Don Denkinger’s call at first base in the 1985 Series – the question arises whether the quality of officiating has deteriorated.

When the question is put to Marty Springstead, who spent 18 years in the business, including three Series, and now supervises the American League’s crews, he answers it this way:

“The only real difference is every time you have a call now, when it’s controversial, it gets replayed 18 times. And the umpire,” he said, “is the only one who doesn’t see any of them.”

Sound familiar? Litke continues:

Imperfect as human beings are, umpires have blown calls in every era and will continue to do so. What has changed is that modern technology came along to provide immediate and often-incontrovertible evidence so that their critics can now be assured of being more correct than the umpires criticized.

The stakes also are much higher at this time of the year. If an umpire blows a call in mid-May in Seattle, it merits one line in an already short story. Let him do the same thing anywhere in mid-October, and every sports show on television treats the film clip like a segment from Now It Can Be Told.

That’s about as timeless of a statement as can be made in baseball. Litke mentions the Denkiger call from the 1985 Series. I wasn’t old enough in 1985 to have heard about the play, but it’s clear that it had an effect on fans and sportswriters. A quick Google search for “umpires blown calls World Series” shows that it was cited for years afterwards as how a bad call can negatively affect a World Series game. For those who don’t know much about that call, here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

It was Game 6 (October 26), with the St. Louis Cardinals leading the Kansas City Royals 3 games to 2. The Cardinals had taken a 1-0 lead on an 8th-inning single by little-used backup catcher Brian Harper after Danny Cox (of the Cardinals) and Charlie Leibrandt (of the Royals) had battled tit-for-tat all game long. Todd Worrell was now in the game for the Cardinals in the 9th inning, facing Jorge Orta, the leadoff batter for the Royals. Orta hit a slow roller to first baseman Jack Clark, who tossed to Worrell covering first base. First-base umpire Denkinger called Orta safe, but television replays and photographs clearly showed that he was out by half a step.

According to Cardinals players, as well as fans, frustration over Denkinger’s bad call contributed to the Cardinals loss of focus during the remainder of game 6, and into game 7, where they lost 11-0 to Kansas City.

A bad call, sure, though I find it hard to believe that the Cardinals were so rattled by the call that they then went on to lose Game 7 11-0 (with Denkinger now behind home plate).

But that only takes us back to the ’80s. Bad calls have been around for much longer than that. Take Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals. The LA Times article from that game claims “Cardinals Charge Umpire Blew Call on Brock at Home“. Here’s how the New York Times described it:

The drama – and the argument – unfolded after Brock had doubled to left field in the fifth inning for his third straight hit. The Cardinals were leading, 3-2, and when Julian Javier lined a single to left Brock took off.

But Horton fired a throw to Freehan, a one-time football player at Michigan who blocked the plate as Brock went flying in. Brock did not slide, they collided and Umpire Doug Harvey went up with his right hand.

Brock, who the Times called the “greatest base-runner in baseball”, was certain he had stepped on the plate before Freehan came around to tag him after the collision, but Freehan claimed that there were clear spike marks in the dirt showing that Brock had missed the plate. Everyone questioned why Brock didn’t slide, including his manager, Red Schoendienst. But the issue came down to whether the umpire made the right call:

Schoendienst and his disappointed Cardinals even invoked the marvels of television to support their argument. Each dugout during the World Series is equipped with a small TV monitor in one corner and the Redbirds intently watched the replays and slow-motion films.

“I was watching Javier rounding first base,” Schoendienst said, “so I didn’t see the collision at the plate. I guess I thought we had a sure run. But all our guys who saw the play and the replay – Roger Maris, Dick Schofield, Joe Schultz and the others – say Brock stepped on the plate. But when I went out and argued, the umpire insisted he missed it.”

That was forty-one years ago and, even then, players, managers, and fans were questioning umpires’ calls through instant replay. And people are trying to say that things have changed? That the umpiring has somehow gotten worse? I don’t buy it.

That’s not to say that things shouldn’t finally change for the better. Just because this “human element” of the sport has been around forever doesn’t mean that we have to put up with it. Major League Baseball certainly needs to take a look at some different ways to improve umpires’ performances – instant replay, better incentives for the best umps, an ump in the booth – but please don’t tell me that today’s umpires are somehow worse than ever. We have decades of newspapers and films that show us otherwise. It couldn’t hurt to improve, though.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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